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Fatal Riddles: HANNIBAL and the Figure of the Serial Killer in Contemporary Television

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by Spencer Short
May 15, 2014 2:42 PM
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The season premiere of Law & Order's fourteenth season, Bodies, constituted a departure from prior episodes.  Cryptic markings on a dead body are matched to similar markings found on a victim in Brooklyn five years before, and then to more bodies, all of which leads Detectives Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) and Green (Jesse L. Martin) to conclude there is a serial killer at work in New York City. The killer—a psychopathic taxi driver named Mark Bruner (played by guest star Ritchie Coster)—is apprehended relatively quickly. Briscoe and Green take no actions in pursuit of the killer that fans of the show haven't seen a thousand times before: they canvass, retrace the steps of the victim, happen upon a nightclub waitress with a keen eye for creepy patrons, and finally follow a hunch that leads them to Bruner's apartment. It's not the pursuit and capture that provide the climax of the episode, however, but the legal predicament that follows: Bruner’s attorney, an idealistic public defender, must either break attorney-client privilege—and tell the prosecutors (and the court) where Bruner has hidden additional bodies—or be charged as an accessory to Bruner's crimes.

Dick Wolf's Law & Order debuted in the fall of 1990, at the peak of New York's violent crime wave—that year, there were over 2,000 murders (compared to 333 in 2013).  Law & Order embraced the fear of social disintegration and addressed it with a severe formalism that married esperanto liberalism with a faith in traditional institutions of justice.  The formula fit the times.  The show debuted four years after Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which created mandatory minimum sentences and helped inaugurate our current prison crisis, and four years before Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act (1994), which flooded the streets with policemen and extended the death penalty to forty new offenses.  Nonetheless, by the late 1990s, as the economy rode a wave of irrational exuberance, and NYC transitioned from a dystopia to a destination for hipsters and financiers alike, the kinds of crimes that captured the public imagination changed as well. Events like the Columbine High School shootings of 1999 and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks spiked fear of hidden threats from within.  Over time, Wolf adapted to this changing landscape by bringing different versions of Law & Order to television, shifting the focus to tawdrier crimes (SVU), or quirkier detectives, (Criminal Intent).[1] On the flagship show, however, the  basic format prevailed, with few exceptions, for the duration of its twenty-year run. It was plug-and-play television, and its reliance on formula guaranteed the show was almost always competent if rarely great.

In Bodies, however, Bruner's lack of traditional motive—he doesn’t kill out of greed, or revenge, or jealousy—renders him less a typical Law & Order criminal than a force of deconstruction and illogic. When Bruner bestows knowledge of his victims' whereabouts on his public defender and then relies on legal rules and ethics to preclude the attorney from sharing that information, he reveals the fundamental contradictions between our abstract notions of justice and the institutional rules which make the judicial system work. By using Bruner this way, Bodies takes a cue from the modern archetype of the fictional intelligent psychopath: the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  In a fit of rage, Shelley's creature – powerful, brilliant, and a wounded social reject all at once - frames the Frankenstein family’s adopted daughter Justine Moritz for the murder of an infant family member.  Torn between confessing to a crime she didn’t commit and ex-communication, Justine admits guilt and is hanged. Although her death may be characterized as innocence lost, it's not the senseless destruction of innocence that drives the creature. Rather, having been judged and excluded by society because of his appearance, the creature seeks revenge by turning the Frankenstein family against itself and exposing the internal contradictions and inherent arbitrariness of the justice system and, by extension, society.

When Law & Order premiered on NBC in the autumn of 1990, it did so over the protests of some executives who thought it was too intense for weekly network television. Just under twenty-five years later, on June 6, 2013, on the same network, roughly 2.5 million viewers watched as Hannibal's Dr. Abel Gideon (Eddie Izzard) graphically disemboweled psychiatrist Dr. Frederick Chilton (Raul Esparza) while a still-conscious Chilton looked on. Gideon is but one of fourteen serial killers introduced in the first twenty-two episodes of Hannibal.  Although notably graphic in its violence, Hannibal is not the first network show to focus on serial killers.[2]  A non-exhaustive list includes NBC's Profiler and Fox's Millenium, both of which premiered in 1996.  It also includes CSI, which premiered on CBS in 2000 (to be followed in 2002 by CSI: Miami and in 2004 by CSI: NY) and which, although not solely devoted to serial killers, relied on a serial killer in its pilot and has depended on serial killers for a number of its multi-episode narrative arcs. Criminal Minds, also on CBS and just renewed for its tenth season, follows the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit (the "BAU" also featured on Hannibal) as they track a new serial killer every week. Within months of Hannibal’s premiere in April, 2013, The Following debuted on Fox, The Bridge on FX, and The Killing’s third (but first serial killer-based) season began on AMC.  And, although they are not network shows, the past year saw both the successful initial run of HBO's True Detective and the disappointing conclusion of Showtime's Dexter.

Why the fascination with "intelligent psychopaths" and serial killers? It's certainly true that there's an audience for gratuitous and/or sadistic violence. The killers are almost invariably white men directing violence (frequently sexual) against "helpless" victims, typically women.  But there must be some further appeal, given the fact that these shows (and novels and movies) command a large, diverse audience of both sexes.  At a minimum, serial killer plotlines are so culturally-determined at this point that they seem to provide a kind of generic gravity, atmosphere, and stability to any show.[3] But Daniel Tiffany, in Infidel Poetics, identifies something atavistic in our morbid fascination that dates back to the legend of the Sphinx, the mythical creature who terrorized Thebes with a fatal riddle. As a "liminal" creature - part human, part lion, part eagle but not actually human, lion, or eagle - the Sphinx is both an antecedent and ancestor to Frankenstein's creature, whose parts also fail to add up, leaving him at once both human and less-than-human. Both figures presage the "intelligent psychopath" of contemporary television, whose inscrutability is the product of his fundamental lack of that something that we believe makes us "human." In this way, the "riddling serial killers and cryptographers of modernity" supply us with a "vernacular strain of 'poetry'" and join the Sphinx (and Shelley's creature) as authors of a vertiginous, "apocalyptic" narrative.  These figures embody a riddle that suspends us between a "promise of revelation" and "the threat of annihilation."[4] By internalizing the superficial grotesqueness of Shelley's creature, the serial killer is all the more beguiling because - unlike the Sphinx or the creature - he terrorizes us from within.  If it seems a stretch to call the work of these killers poems, we need only consider how we distinguish a killer's "style" by what we call his signature.

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